Chris L. Butler and I both have strong feminist wives and work up at the Daily Drunk. Here we talk about rap, narrative, and being a multitude of poets in one.
MM: Could we start with your more overtly political poems? I’m thinking here of Fuck Yo’ Statue, Things I Hear From Internet Trolls and Cyberbullies, Descendants of Emmett Till. . . these are poems that address your thoughts on the American moment. Where do you see yourself in these poems? What part of them makes them personal to you and your views? I guess I’m asking because we play those two things off each other, as if they’re opposites “the personal” “the political”, but I don’t think that’s the case in your poems.
CLB: I’ll start with where I see myself in these poems. As a Black American, these poems are of course a testimony on my ancestry, but also my lived reality. When I was 14 years old, my mom first told me the story of Emmett Till. When I was 21-22, Trayvon Martin was killed. When I was 24, Sandra Bland was arrested and later died while incarcerated in my county, Harris County, Texas. Many Black and Brown people in the U.S. fear that we could be next. As far the origins of “Fuck Yo’ Statue,” that comes from my disdain for celebrated historical figures I view as corrupt. Like the former mayor of Philadelphia, Mike Rizzo. His statue was heavily contested by the Black community in Philly, where I grew up, due to a violent history of police brutality under his leadership. I believe it inspired future police on citizen violence in the city, and it became a cultural norm during and beyond his administration. In Philly, we don’t have statues of confederate generals. But we do have Mayor Rizzo. After living in Houston for 5 years, I saw the correlation between the Rizzo statue near my high school, and the local public school in my new community in Houston, which was formerly named after Jefferson Davis. I’ve lived a lot of places, and I think my myriad of experiences created that poem.
MM: Yeah, that overarching perspective in your work plays out a lot, this sense of looking at the whole picture.
CLB: When I write a poem, I try to take a step back. I definitely lean on narrative, so I want to paint a full picture of what I’m seeing.
MM: Yeah. I think what’s interesting to me about the political poems, as opposed to many of your other poems, which have heavy doses of pop culture references, is the difference in where you are. In the political poems, it’s almost as if you’re letting the events speak for themselves, you’re just presenting them from an honest position of outrage and demanding freedom. Whereas the pop culture poems, it’s easier to see you, you remind us that you’re a kid watching these things. Would you agree? If so, why does the perspective need to shift between those two projects?
CLB: That’s a great question. As a Black artist, I never want to be boxed in. I write political poems, because my existence is heavily politicized. But I also love to write about pop culture, because much of pop culture stems from my culture. I have a manuscript I’m working on where you see a lot of these political poems. And you’re right, I narrate my view, but in that honest narration, the events do speak for themselves. Partially because, we all know what injustice is, and partially because I am not the sole voice for Black people. This is merely my poetic telling of how I see things. Folx may agree, or they may not. But with my debut micro chapbook BLERD: ‘80s BABY, ‘90s KID (Daily Drunk Chaps, 2021). I wanted to remind people that Black poets also write about wrestling, anime, music, and amusement parks. You know?
MM: Makes a lot of sense. And I think, for me, the through line between both projects is this wonderful line you end Wrestlemania 2000 on with “Meanwhile/I, in conjunction with the crowd, lose my fucking mind” Both projects are concerned with the Mass, as in a mass experience, a mass emotion. You’re looking at that roar that goes through us, either when we all know we saw the same Nickelodeon special or when your whole community has seen a boy who could be you die on tv.
CLB: 100%. While I write for myself, I try to write things that are going to be relatable to other people. No matter the role they play in the piece. I also like to keep people guessing on what I’ll do next. I’d like to explore a variety of ideas.
MM: Y’know, that’s so interesting, Jason B. Crawford said a similar thing when I spoke to them, about writing for the self. Can you expand on that for yourself? What does it mean to you, what do you oppose it to? Like, is the opposite writing for my audience, or writing for publication, or what?
CLB: When I was in school we learned Frost, Poe, Whitman, Woolf, Dickinson, etc. We learned Langston Hughes during Black history month. While I love Hughes, I was inspired to write because of rappers. The east coast cities are more alike than not. Philly is very gritty, like the old NYC. So because of that I gravitated to rappers like Jay Z, Nas, and Biggie. I’m a child of the 90s, so to me, they are poets. Nas even tells us on Illmatic when he says “my poetry’s deep I never fail, Nas’ raps should be locked in a cell, it ain’t hard to tell.” As I got into my teens, poet-emcees like Andre 3000, MF Doom, Black Thought, and Lupe Fiasco were sources of inspiration. Also, the old Kanye. A lot of those guys are storytellers who aim to paint a picture. I think you have to be a bit selfish if you’re going to employ this style as a writer. When I say selfish I don’t mean greedy, but rather authentic. That requires writing for you. As far as publication goes, I think the biggest mistake a writer can make is only writing for publication. At that point we become the product. I am trying to build a career as a professional writer, so I don’t want to come off as ungrateful for publication. I love the rush of submitting to literary magazines and presses. But I love the feeling of putting my pen to the paper much more. Not everything is meant to be published. I’ve got poems I wrote 5 years ago that got published last year. I have poems that I’ll never share. And that’s okay. We need to normalize that.
MM: We absolutely do. I’m so glad you brought up your influences in rap, because there’s a lot of rap rhythms in your work, and while you work in what reads to me as free verse (Forgive me if I’m missing forms I don’t know about, I’m new at this poetry analysis game) there’s a lot of internal rhyme that works like rap lyrics. Does that sort of structure come naturally to you, as a fan? Or does it require more thought and attention than I’m picturing?
CLB: So it’s funny that you say that. I definitely agree I mostly write in free verse. Lately I’ve been trying to write a villanelle and a duplex, but 90% of the time I write free verse. That absolutely comes from my hip hop influences, as well as watching a lot of Def Jam Poetry at my aunt’s house. I remember being like, “I wanna be on this show when I grow up.” As far as the question as to why I use internal rhyme? That’s me resisting the disdain for rhyme poetry. So I put my rhyme internally these days as an act of resistance, and now additionally as a homage to MF Doom’s legacy. He was a master of in-line rhyme.
MM: MF Doom for sure mastered that. I also love that defiant push for rhyme, you’re right, we’ve become very cynical about it. I also wanted to grow up and be on Def Jam! That show needs to come back
CLB: Definitely. By the way, I address the disdain for rhyme poetry in BLERD. So that’ll be fun to see play out.
I also want to be clear that I started out writing essentially raps, but over time have learned how to keep rhyme and enter the more “poetic” space.
MM: I want to ask you more about that transition, but first, back to BLERD, what sort of power do you think it lends a poem to invoke another piece of media? How does a poem about pop culture gain strength?
CLB: What makes BLERD special is while it is very much about pop culture these pieces also tell a poetic snapshot of my life. In my pitch I described it as a “poetic micro memoir.” It begins with poems about my childhood, and culminates with how pop culture played a role in my writing journey. I think a lot of those pieces, towards the back half of the chap are honest in that way. That’s where the power comes in. While the collection is not overtly political like the poems we discussed earlier, it is covertly political. Political, in the sense that many of us feel pressured by the academy to fit into a cookie cutter model for writing. What works for some doesn’t work for all. That’s what this collection says, without giving too much away.
MM: An important message. So what was that pivot from writing raps to writing poetry like? A lot’s been said about the relationship between the two mediums, if they are distinguishable. What’s your take on it?
CLB: It’s been a long journey. When I was in middle school and high school it was definitely just raps. But in college I was able to take 2 creative writing courses that really got me to focus. As I became a better reader, I discovered the Break Beat Poets anthologies. That’s when I found out there was a space for me. I try to take the best of both worlds and employ my own style. I think I should also note that I have poems that don’t rhyme like “Rotten Fruit” which is about relationships, and “Battlefield,” a poem about an American soldier in the Vietnam War. Like I said, I wanna keep people guessing.
MM: That multitudinous-ness. Love it. Okay, we’re wrapping up here, although I wish we could keep going. But before we go, I’m gonna pick two images from your poems and make you choose, okay?
CLB: Sounds good.
MM: Okay, Swanton bombs or Hey Arnold?
CLB: Hey Arnold, because it’s more relatable and leads into a comedic finish. That’s something I’m particularly proud of pulling off, as comedy isn’t my lane.
MM: Move it football head.
What I wish I’d asked: What beats are you rapping to in your poems? Besides striking back at the disdain, what power do you draw from rhyming? What’s the connection between selfish as in greedy and selfish as in authentic?
Chris L. Butler is an African American and Dutch poet/essayist. His micro chapbook BLERD: ‘80s BABY, ‘90s KID will be published by The Daily Drunk Press this August. He is an editor for Bending Genres and Versification Zine, and would love to read your work.
Mordecai Martin is a 5th generation New York Jew who has lived in Jerusalem and Mexico City. He now resides in Philadelphia with his wife and his cat. His short stories can be read at http://linktr.ee/MordecaiPMartin, his tweets can be read @MordecaiPMartin and his blog can be read at http://www.mordecaimartin.net.